8 Warning Signs Women Over 40 Shouldn't Ignore

Got a cough? Bloating? Tingling in the feet? How to tell when symptoms that seem minor are really trying to tell you something.

By Ginny Graves
Photograph: Illustration by The Heads of State

Other signs it may be serious: Weakness on one side of the body, slurred speech, dizziness, blurred vision, headache, neck stiffness, or lack of coordination are all red flags. A temporary bout of amnesia (not being able to remember what you did for the past few hours) or symptoms that last only a few minutes could signal a transient ischemic attack (TIA), a ministroke that raises your risk of the real deal substantially, especially over the following few days. Certain factors raise your odds of having a stroke: getting migraines with an aura; smoking; being overweight; having heart disease, diabetes, or high blood pressure; and being on the pill or HT.

When to act: "Call 911 if any of these symptoms develop suddenly — for example, if you’re not able to do something that you could do five minutes earlier," Hillis says. A quick response is critical, because receiving a clot-busting drug within the first three hours improves the odds of recovery by an estimated 30 percent. "Even if symptoms go away on their own, you should get to the emergency room as soon as possible to be evaluated for the cause of the TIA, so a stroke can be prevented," Hillis recommends.

Symptom: A New Mole

Likely cause: Harmless skin growth

Worst-case scenario: Skin cancer

While it’s common to develop new moles before midlife, finding a new one or seeing changes in an existing mole after age 40 could be a sign of melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer.

Other signs it may be serious: "If a mole — new or old — turns darker or black, becomes asymmetrical, or causes pain, itching, or bleeding, you should get it checked out right away," says Robert Brodell, MD, a dermatologist in Warren, Ohio, who is a spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology. The more moles you have, the greater your risk for melanoma. Being fair and spending lots of time in the sun (even if you only did so in your youth) raises your risk, as does every single sunburn. "If you have lots of sun damage, like freckles, you have a higher risk too," Brodell says.

When to act: "Call your dermatologist as soon as you notice something unusual and say, ‘I have a changing mole, and I’m worried about it.’ She should get you in within a week or two," Brodell says. If you don’t have a dermatologist, ask your doctor for a referral. The dermatologist should check your whole body for signs of skin cancer and biopsy anything that looks suspicious. "Fortunately, when melanoma is caught early it’s very curable," Brodell says. To protect your skin, apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF  30 every day, have full-body screenings annually, and check your body for new or changing moles once a month.

Originally published in MORE magazine, March 2009.

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